Fierce battles near final IS foothold in eastern Syria

BEIRUT (AP) – Islamic State (IS) group extremists cornered in their last foothold in eastern Syria fought back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps on Monday, slowing Kurdish fighters advancing under the cover of United States (US)-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish news agencies and a Syrian war monitor said.

An Italian photographer was wounded in the clashes between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.

No one knows exactly how many IS extremists are still holding out in the sliver of territory under attack, although they are estimated to be in the hundreds, most of them foreign fighters. It is also unclear if civilians are still inside, caught under heavy bombardment.

The SDF on Saturday launched its final push to clear the area from IS, after months of fighting that saw 20,000 civilians fleeing just in the past few weeks. The numbers have overwhelmed Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meager resources.

The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the IS extremists’ territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed “kingdom” in 2014.

Syrian Democratic Forces’ fighters stand guard as a convoy of trucks transports civilians fleeing the battered Islamic State extremist group-held holdout of Baghouz in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor on Monday. – AFP

That in turn, would open the way for US President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing US troops from northern Syria as he has promised to do once the IS group has been defeated.

“The US will soon control 100 per cent of IS territory in Syria,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. He has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want the US to be the world’s policeman and that he intends to bring the 2,000 US troops home.

US officials and Trump’s own military advisors, however, have warned that losing its territorial hold does not mean that the IS group is defeated, warning that IS could stage a comeback in Syria within six months to a year if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased.

Commander of US forces in the Middle East General Joseph Votel estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control, but he said others have “dispersed” and “gone to ground”.

In recent weeks, US officials have said IS has lost 99.5 per cent of its territory and is holding on to under five square kilometres, where most of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents said IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.

Lebanese political analyst Assad Bechara said the IS group is an ideology, not just a military structure, and it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory from the group.

“This (American) pullout will leave a huge vacuum despite the allegations of defeating the last pockets of IS. This vacuum will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria,” he said, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return.

It is not clear how long the final push to free Baghouz from IS will take. Trump said last week he had been told that the full territorial conquest to defeat IS could be completed in the coming week.

But progress appears to be slower than what SDF officials had initially estimated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF were moving very slowly due to landmines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists’ use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. IS also is using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.

On Monday, the Observatory said 13 IS militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.

IS said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of its “martyrdom-seekers” attacked SDF fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.

Syrian state media claimed a US-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children. More than 20,000 civilians have left the IS-held area in recent weeks.